Righting Patti Smith’s Wrongs

Nora Chipaumire’s #PUNK

By Abigail Covington

No more than two minutes into her performance of #PUNK, Nora Chipaumire approached an older, white woman standing in the audience and screamed squarely in her face, “I am a rock and roll nigger!” The slur silenced the room. The woman’s wide open eyes met Chipaumire’s stare. She didn’t blink until Chipaumire had turned around fully and was facing the opposite direction.

I knew those words. They’re from the song, “Rock and Roll Nigger,” written by Patti Smith for her 1978 album Easter. The program for #PUNK had promised a “raw performance combining elements of dance and theater” in which Chipaumire “riffed on an iconic Patti Smith lyric,” and this phrase were the lyrics, the only lyrics, she’d chosen. By the end of the performance, Chipaumire had screamed, sung or whispered, “I am a rock and roll nigger” more than 25 times.

Nora Chipaumire blows up Patti Smith’s infamous lyrics in #PUNK. photo: © Foto Robisco

Nearly 40 years ago, when Patti Smith declared herself to be a “rock and roll nigger,” she was using the phrase as a synonym for a cultural outsider. It was a play on Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” which identified a tendency in hip, white artists to adopt the rebelliousness, machismo, and sexual liberation that Mailer problematically associated with African Americans. When his essay was first published in Dissent Magazine in 1957, it was considered divisive and controversial. And when Smith reintroduced the idea in 1978, it was received even more bitterly because unlike Mailer, Smith was self-identifying as a “white Negro” or a “rock and roll nigger.” Punk rock’s mad scientist caused an explosion.

The song’s barked-out lyrics define a “rock and roll nigger” as a black sheep or anybody who lives outside of conformist society, and by that reckoning, Patti Smith is indeed one. She’s long opposed the status quo. But considering the word’s etymology and its cultural context, both in the past and today –its contempt and intent to harm — Smith was making a gross and reckless mischaracterization. As Dave Marsh wrote in his Rolling Stone review of Easter in 1978, “’Rock and Roll Nigger’ is an unpalatable chant because Smith doesn’t understand the word’s connotation, which is not outlawry but a particularly vicious kind of subjugation and humiliation that’s antithetical to her motive.”

But Nora Chipaumire does. Because it’s been used against her. When Chipaumire screams, “I am a rock and roll nigger” and bangs her chest, she is giving up, in a sense, on changing the way the Western world frames her. “Go back to Africa, nigger” Chipaumire chants next, imitating the insults she’s heard. What a twisted luxury it was for Smith to be able to use the term ‘nigger’ ironically, I think to myself during the performance. Meanwhile, each time Chipaumire bellows “I am a rock and roll nigger” across the audience, her whole body reacts violently. In one moment, she balls her fists and covers her eyes with them, then thrusts her hips forwards and backwards repeatedly before collapsing to the ground. “I am a rock and roll nigger,” she whispers weakly from somewhere inside her collapsed, coiled body.

In reference to the infamous phrase, Smith has been quoted many times as saying, “The song title is a redefining of an archaic slang term as a badge for those contributing on the fringe of society.” But the term was never hers to redefine. Nor is the word, “nigger” simply “archaic slang.” It’s an alive-and-kicking slur meant to insult a specific group of people to which Smith doesn’t belong. Noble as her intentions may have been, Smith couldn’t have defanged the word “nigger” because she’d never felt its bite.

For Chipaumire, the situation is reversed. “Go back to Africa, nigger,” said someone to her at some point. How do you bounce back from that kind of blow? In the final moments of the performance she imitates the insult again. “Go back to Africa, go back to Africa,” she says, eyes closed, headed tilted toward the floor. Then she responds: “I’m going to go back to Africa and give a damn about my past.” She draws her shoulders back and pulls her arms out to her sides. “And I’m gonna give a damn about my future.” Then she opens her mouth until the audience can see her tonsils and roars one last time, “I am a rock and roll nigger!” before jumping offstage and falling facedown onto the floor below.

In the silence before the applause starts, I wonder, Is she still stuck underneath the phrase or was she able pin it to the ground? Is being a “rock and roll nigger” insulting or empowering? Chipaumire doesn’t answer this question for the audience. Instead, she leaves us in awe of the phrase’s weight. She wrestled with it for nearly an hour. At times she seemed to celebrate being a “rock and roll nigger.” She marched and strutted across the stage, wearing the phrase as the proud badge Patti Smith intended it to be. In other moments, she shuddered as she shouted the words. She expressed due ambivalence about a phrase that Smith, in a rare, erroneous moment, created and used flippantly. She spit out Smith’s lyric for good.